Citadel 5

How did you go on, when there was nowhere to go?

They cleaned. They scrubbed and rearranged and of course, they built. But even Raven had cracked and fallen apart every time they tried to fly her.

In the end, hadn’t it all just been a prelude to this?

Kio struggled as the icy rime came closer. Soon, crystals were forming on his clothing, on the tips of his hair. The cold was a knife, a lead blanket, a monster. He couldn’t think clearly.

He didn’t know what he was struggling against. How could memories be this real, this physical? He knew that day had been ten years ago, more, and yet it was still all he could do to reach Karla again.

She coughed, but the dark glass remained in her eyes. Maybe she was still in there, watching the bodies fall.

I can’t let her die here. She’s supposed to go the surface.

He couldn’t drag her behind him without making everything worse for both of them. He had to leave her. Had to go find something that could help.

“I’ll be back,” he promised, though she couldn’t hear him.

Moving was an agony. He was shaking so hard from the cold and the memory, and every one of his muscles was paralyzed. With effort, he managed to lift his eyes to the room.

The long solarium curved upward ahead of him. As an inner citadel room, it would have a ladder or a staircase, which he could climb, and find…something. To help Karla and put the gas back and fix everything.

His eyes settled on one of the burned velvet chairs. Suddenly he felt drawn to it. Somebody had sat in that chair, regularly–someone important. But touching it, even looking at it, might trigger another memory, and who knew when he’d come out of that?

As he shivered uncontrollably, though, another thought occurred to him. What if diving into the memories was the only way forward? What if that was where he would find the way to save himself and Karla?

It was more worth a try than anything else he could think of to do.

He focused on the chair. It had been a man’s favorite, a man Kio knew extremely well, for he figured into practically every memory he kept of the days before Year Zero.

He didn’t see one of those, however. He didn’t even see his father in this room, the one he had loved so much.

He saw what he’d seen every time. More of that day. Another piece of the puzzle.

 

“Kio!” A booming voice rang through the corridors. “Son! Kio!”

There was no mistaking the call of Sieno Rokhshan. But why was he here? He should have been up on the towers, commanding the fight against the invaders from the surface. Kio had wandered out of the machine courtyard and into a statuary room full of plush chairs, where he sheltered, rain-soaked, under a tapestry hanging from a windowsill.

Footsteps grew louder, then a curtain opposite Kio flew aside. Seven-foot, red-haired Sieno Rokhshan stood against a sky that was turning ever greener. He opened his mouth to shout again, but doubled over in a coughing fit.

Kio abandoned his sodden tapestry and ran to his father. When Sieno caught him around the neck, the boy felt a chill that had nothing to do with rain. His dad, Lord Rokhshan of Nashido, was leaning on him for support.

“Have you stayed out of the air, son?” Sieno asked, bracing himself with a hand against the cold floor. “Have you breathed the ash cloud?”

Kio hadn’t been outside for ten minutes. He shook his head.

“Good.” His father rose to a squat, and his light blue eyes met Kio’s. “Why in the Benefactor’s name aren’t you in the great hall with the rest of the young?”

Kio found his voice. “Didn’t feel safe.”

Sieno put his arms around his son. Kio was so small his father could clasp opposite elbows behind his back. He rested his stubbly chin on Kio’s shoulder. “My cautious son. You can’t run off without telling anyone where you’re going, understand?”

Shivering from the rain, Kio nodded.

“It doesn’t matter now, anyway.” The Lord of Rokhshan pulled back and set hands on his heir’s shoulders. “You may have been correct about the great hall. The invaders mean to clip Nashido’s wings. If they try to defeat us by destroying the castle, the hall will fall easily. As will this one.”

Suddenly, Kio’s feet felt unsteady, like the sitting room was already being sheared right out from under him by a landling sword. He clung to his father’s shoulders to stay standing. “Which rooms are safe?”

Sieno’s eyes flickered up to the highest tower, trying to see the battle through the fringe of the ash cloud. But the towers were quiet, save for the abandoned gliders drifting around them. The invaders were filling the halls of Castle Nashido.

“I can only be certain of one,” he said. “The Heartsphere.”

“I was going there, father.”

Sieno shook his head. “Not the walls. Inside.”

“What?” Kio forgot himself. He sprang back from his father as Sieno coughed again, deeper and longer. “But we can’t go in the Heartsphere. It’s the first law of the Benefactor. Cousin Lethis tried, and we had…we had to…”

“Lethis didn’t respect Nashido’s power, or the Benefactor’s. You do, Kio. More than anyone.” Once more, he hugged his son, then stood and turned–crouched slightly, like he was preparing for battle with the ash cloud. “If a mistake from the surface tries to enter, Nashido will turn them to ash. And the Benefactor will smile.”

“Wait!” Kio called, but Sieno Rokhshan raced into the ash cloud without turning, stopping only once to double over coughing. Kio stood frozen, unable to fix his father’s face in his mind, to believe he hadn’t looked back. Disbelief rooted him to the spot until the door in the opposite wall slammed shut and blocked the Lord of Nashido from view.

He couldn’t hide in the heartsphere. They’d banish him, like Lethis, even if he told them he’d done it to escape the landlings. He would do what he’d planned to, hide in the keep around the sphere and dodge the invaders until he couldn’t any longer.

Kio took deep breaths. The statues leered down at him. His father had run into the keep that surrounded the heartsphere, and Kio had to follow. But that meant running through the ash cloud. And what if the landlings were in there already? And what if the heartsphere failed somehow, plummeted to the surface?

He shook his head at the last thought. Blasphemy. A Rokhshan didn’t fear heights.

He gulped in one more breath of air, only choking a little as it hit his throat, and ran.

 

In the present, Kio thought ecstatically, they cared, they cared. The thought of his father’s touch lent strength into his limbs. Not every memory was terrible. And they’d never truly been alone up here.

It was enough for him to crawl to Karla, where he faltered, seeing that she hadn’t changed. He wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close, warmed her with what little warmth he had left to give.

“I saw my father,” he whispered in her ear. “Karla, people tried to help us. People wanted us to live. Remember them, Karla? You must have had someone like that for you, right?”

What was the name? The one she swore by? It was as good a guess as any.

“Mara,” he said to her. “Remember Mara. Remember what she did to save you.”

***

Kio, of course, didn’t know what a mistake he was making by saying that. But neither did Karla, in the moment. She was too far away from reality, too rooted back in that day.

 

Just as Karla was starting to think the great castle in the sky was nothing but towers and bridges, they entered the sphere keep. Almon and Kevin fell back into the ranks, Almon’s nose turning useless as the ash cloud thickened.

“See the curving floor?” Mara pointed with her sword. “This is the fortress the earliest Rokhshan built. They claim that Benefactor of theirs laid it out personally.”

Looking around the room, Karla could believe the hands of a god had put it together. Red silk carpeted the gently sloping floor, soft and warm on her chilled bare feet. Stained glass, shaded green by the ash cloud, filled broad windows that the rain pounded on. Strange gilded objects hung from the walls or rested upended on tables, while bits of wood and strong-smelling berries crunched under the Harpooneer’s feet. Karla’s eyes fixed on a chandelier, its crystals half glittering with pale ashlight and half stained with burns and melted wax.

Kevin ran his gloved hand along the books on a shelf, tracing paths through the dust on their spines. “Think they ever read these?”

“We should be more concerned with that.” Mara pointed at the flagstones between the stained-glass windows, where nails had been hammered into the walls. Karla tugged at her mother’s hand to get closer. The dusty outline of a sword longer than she was tall hung above the nails.

She sneezed. “Mommy, why is there so much dust?”

“Because the people who live here don’t know how to clean without their slaves.” Mara looked up at the chandelier. Somehow the Rokhshan could light it–probably with sky magic–but they couldn’t clean it.

Karla’s mother was still looking at the chandelier when the thumps came from below. Dozens of voices shouted, wordless cries that surrounded the room. They came from the doors at either end, from underneath the floor.

“Defend the doors!” Mara shouted. “They can’t tunnel through flagstone!”

As the Harpooneers rushed to pile furniture against the doors, she cast her eyes around, then pulled Karla across the silk carpet toward the little space between two bookshelves. The last thing she saw before her mother blocked her view of the room was Almon, sniffing at the air with his face contorted while Kevin drew his short scoutsword.

More shouting from below, nearly resolving into words. “You’re to hide,” Mara told her, “do you understand?”

“No!” Karla backed against the inner wall. “I’m staying with you. We’re fighting together.”

“Not this time,” Mara said, her breath shallow. “Not this fight.”

Both barricades, tables and chairs stacked high, burst outward. The fighters stepped back, preparing to meet the Rokhshan counterattack. Karla saw tears streaking her mother’s face–well, then, all the more important for her not to cry.

Turning around, she discovered what Mara had seen on this patch of the wall: a little catch, near Karla’s eye level. She took hold of the handle. Her mother wrapped two fingers over Karla’s hand, and helped her swing the small door wide. Beyond was a cupboard with two dusty, empty shelves. Mara leaned in and pulled the shelves free, leaving a space just big enough for Karla.

More pounding on the barricades. The chandelier clinked, a sound like a thousand pearl necklaces were dropping onto the castle’s roof. Karla slid herself sideways into the cupboard to see if she could–it was cramped, but she had a bit of room to wiggle.

She rolled out and got to her feet, but her mother stopped her with a hand on her chest. “Don’t. Stay hidden.”

Karla blinked, forcing herself not to do anything stupid. She wasn’t some kid anymore. She’d been through war.

“You’re the Harpooneer that survives, Karla.” Mara wiped her face with the hand not holding her sword. “You have to live, no matter what.”

Karla nodded. A chair went flying, nearly striking one of the fighters, as the far door swung open.

“Say it!” Mara urged.

“I have to live,” Karla repeated. “No matter what.”

With the heel of her hand, her mother pushed her back into the tiny cupboard. The last thing Karla saw before she curled up in the dark space was a Rokhshan in purple-and-gold-trim uniform holding a flaming torch aloft, while more points of light burst in behind him.

Mara shut the door. There was no handle on the inside. Even the sickly green light didn’t filter through. Karla huddled in the pitch black.

The sky tore open, and all the gods screamed in her ear.

 

Kio had seen something that made him want to keep going. Fine for him. It couldn’t have felt like this.

He’d gotten a second wind. She’d just gotten a reminder of what was nipping at her heels. But on Nashido, maybe that was the same thing.

She was the Harpooneer who would survive. She was the one who had to.

With a guttural growl, she let Kio help her to her feet. They set off, without speaking, deeper into the Inner Citadel.

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Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Citadel 4

Speaking of breath. Kio wasn’t sure how to breathe.

A long, slow gulp of air left him gasping, which led him to nearly inhale a gob of the gas. That absolutely could not happen. It was already causing heavy shaking coughs to wrack Karla’s body, maybe was keeping her in her memory longer than he’d been trapped in his.

Then again, maybe it was why she hadn’t tried to kill him, the way he had swung at her.

It was clear what he was breathing in: the heating gas, or rather, the two gases in permanent reaction. The room was warming even as its oxygen was shoved out.

They had to get out of here.

He groped on the floor, managed to close fingers around the damp surface of his glowing rock. The other one had vanished in the collapse of the stone stacks.

He put his arm around Karla’s waist. “Can you crawl?”

“Kio…”

His heart leapt, nearly causing a dangerous gulp of air. She was back!

“We gotta move. One hand in front of the other. Come on.”

There was enough Karla present for her to understand how serious this was. She crawled, feebly at first, then stronger. “I saw them.”

“Saw what?” The burned carpet went on forever. How many of his damn ancestors were they feasting in this bloody room?

“The green cloud. And the flock of birds. They were gliders, Kio, not birds, I’ve been wrong all this time…”

Gliders. Harpooneers. Kio shoved the vision of Medwick in Sunton away. Karla’s dream had her watching from underneath. She’d been with them on Nashido. Probably sheltering with the others.

“But I didn’t see the fire.” She dragged herself forward. “Where was the fire?”

Kio had the strange feeling it would come.

Shoving the glowstone ahead of him, he saw its light fall on a wall, decorated with gold filigree. Karla crawled into it. “Door. Where’s the door?”

Craning his neck up, Kio saw a handle in the center of two great slabs of wood. The gate was almost too large to see.

He couldn’t reach with his arm. With every breath from the thin oxygen pockets, his grasp became weaker. “Help me stand up,” he begged Karla in between coughs.

“Push,” she answered, trying to do so. No good. They must have been blocked on the other side.

Karla wriggled closer, forming a step with her body. Using her to boost himself up, Kio pawed at the handle.

His first grasp missed. His second slipped off when Karla fell.

“Sorry!” Her weak voice strained for air.

Kio braced himself. There wouldn’t be a fourth chance. Using Karla’s help one last time, he reared up, launching himself farther than he could have gone otherwise. At the top of his arc, he seized the door handle.

The heavy wooden slab swung open under his weight. Karla dragged herself through. Holding his breath, keeping the glowstone first, Kio followed.

Together, they slammed the door. Kio slumped to the ground, filling his lungs, not even bothering to look around the new room. How had he never known oxygen could taste this good?

The chill was returning without the high concentration of gas, an unpleasant reminder that the problem they’d come to deal with was only getting worse. The gas was supposed to stay in its envelope between the Inner Citadel and the Heartsphere. If it was leaking, how could they put it back?

He turned to ask Karla what she thought. But she wasn’t lying where she’d been before.

Kio crawled to her. She was in the corner, arms over her legs, eyes glassy. Huddled and shaking. When he reached out to touch her face, a few curls of deep purple smoke leaked out of her open mouth.

Benefactor! She’d inhaled more of the gas than him. What was it doing to her?

Or was it more than the gas? Her face looked like it had when she had been lost in her memory.

In desperation, he swept his glowstone over the room, hoping it would contain something useful. But all he saw was a solarium: high-backed velvet chairs with charred frames, tea tables with cups still on them, a blocked door at one end, a vault with a valve in the other.

A heartsphere entrance.

Heartsphere…sitting room…

…NO!

At least, this time, he knew he was being plunged into the same memory as Karla.

***

Karla saw the room in the daylight, after three days of night.

 

The first time they entered the room of the dead, she and Kio had both jumped up one of the broken windowsills and thrown up what remained of their meals from the garden. Then Karla turned around and marched back toward the dead fighters. Kio went with her, his face a stoic mask.

The charred bodies were littered through the upper room, and all the way down through the port side, in sitting rooms. Some were upright in chairs, Kio’s aunts and uncles with their faces black and twisted, cups still in their hands.

In the great hall, the Rokhshan had tried to run. They lay in a pile, twisted and screaming, one black limb indistinguishable from the next.

Some of the Harpooneers had been injured before the explosion. Everyone in the upper hall lay in pieces. Forever storming the barricades the Rokhshan had built.

Karla and Kio buried them all.

(this time Karla thought within the memory, though in fragments–they had obliterated all memory to deal with the sight of everyone they loved, burned beyond recognition–they had become golems, become golems)

They used the rugs and table linens in the room as the first shrouds. When these ran out, they ransacked the rest of the sphere keep, then dug through the out-towers for towels, bedsheets, and anything else to wrap the bodies. The winds bit their bare arms as they staggered back and forth under loads of linen, but neither of them discussed stopping. They would not look at the bodies. They hadn’t even had to make the choice.

Karla and Kio met up again at the bridge that led down to the mist gardens. Open sky yawned down for miles on both sides, overcast with white.

“Should we each dump half of them?” Kio asked.

“Why?”

“That way you could always feel like…maybe…” His face colored. “Maybe you hadn’t dumped your people.”

“No.” Karla shook her head. “We can’t carry grown-ups alone, and that’s a stupid idea anyway.”

Kio flushed harder. “Why do you think everything I say is stupid? What’s your idea?”

“It’s stupid because why would you want to sit around wondering?” She looked him in the eye. “Let’s do them all together. Everyone says goodbye to everyone.”

“Everyone.” Kio backed off the bridge like a turtle retreating into its shell. “Everyone who’s left.”

(it was clear to Karla now: everything she was, everything that was Kio, was the mask they had built to survive this day)

For all that day and night, as the sun vanished under clouds and the moon rolled over their heads, they carried the dead Rokhshan and Harpooners from the keep to the drawbridge and dropped them into the sky. Almost all the shrouds unraveled as gravity took over, but Karla never stayed to watch, dragging Kio back inside for the next body. One of them was her mother. Two of them were the parents of the sad Rokhshan boy she was suddenly trapped with.

 

The fire had killed them. She hadn’t seen the fire, but she knew.

And she knew why she had blocked the memories of Year Zero. It wasn’t only that she had thrown her own mother into the sky. It had been the only day she had felt condemned to die in the sky.

Not anymore. Ice crystals were beginning to form on the velvet surfaces of the chairs. They had lost their warmth. They couldn’t put it back in its bottle.

Karla and Kio had refused to let Castle Nashido, their prison, become the tomb for everyone they loved. They’d even fought their way into that mass in the Great Hall, that floating zoo of charred meat.

Instead, it would be their tomb alone.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Citadel 3

Mmm Watcha Say (Nashido Edition) (CRA6Ch3) copy

Illustration by Grace Pyles.

“What the hell?” Karla had time to gasp out before she inhaled a mouthful of something that wasn’t air.

She gagged. Whatever she’d swallowed burned her throat. Then Kio hit her in the face.

Hacking and coughing, Karla sprawled across the pile of stones, which shifted further. One block clattered out of its stack, bounced through the outer citadel dining room, and fell all the way out into the sky.

Kio reared back. He had a small block in his hand, ready to swing at her face. She rolled aside, and the impact shook the pile even harder.

“It’s me!” she shouted. “It’s Karla!”

A cloud came over Kio’s eyes. He paused, with his stone in mid-swing.

“Karla?”

That gave her all the time she needed to hurl herself at his midsection and knock them both sprawling. They sailed through the air, clearing the hole, rolling apart as they landed. The grinding, rumbling sound from the stones grew louder.

Wrapping an arm around Kio’s waist, Karla rolled hard to starboard, dragging them both across the scorched rug into a corner. As the bone dragon’s careful pile collapsed, she flashed back to the mound of rubble on the sky kingdom–

–and then flashed back to something else.

“I’m…I’m here. I’m back.” Kio pushed himself up on his elbows, then gulped and vomited.

She might have felt like joining him, but everything he did suddenly seemed far away. Was she transforming?

No, that had felt different. She had been becoming something. This felt like being boxed into a cage.

“Karla.” Tears streaked Kio’s face as he wiped his mouth. “I’m sorry…”

Memory took her away.

 

“When we land,” Mara whispered in her ear over the rush of the wind, “you crumple, understand? Don’t try to land on your feet.”

Karla didn’t nod. The glider was moving so fast she thought she’d throw up or pass out if she moved her head at all. “You’re landing with me, right, Mom?”

The howling air nearly swallowed her voice, a high-pitched little bird’s voice. But her mother said yes anyway. “Of course, Karla. We’ll land together. Roll and stand up.”

“Roll and stand up,” she repeated, and her mother held her tighter.

Karla was harnessed to the glider at her shoulders and hips, bound against her mother who was hanging from the craft’s canvas wings. She was still so little it felt like she was a baby again, rocked in her mother’s arms.

The great sheet snapped and groaned under the force of high altitude. Rain drove hard against the canvas. Other gliders hung in the void around them, a fleet numerous as a flock of birds: sleek sail-sized gliders bleached white, cobbled hulks of iron and canvas, bedsheets nailed onto their own frames the night before.

Her mother reached for a lever, and flipped a blue flag over their sail. “Harpooneers, descend!”

Nobody heard her shout. The flag sent the message. The fleet turned downward slowly, starting with its nose, like a huge skyborne beast, following them. Following Karla’s mother. Aiming for the sphere in the sky.

The Harpooners on their gliders fled the mass of green air, the very same air that was buoying them along. Karla had managed one look back at the ash cloud, right as they were launching off the cliff, and wished she hadn’t. She could still see it in her mind: that toxic cloud pulsing with glittering lights, descending over the island, over the mountains and Freetown. Her mother said they were running toward the castle because they couldn’t breathe in that air.

“Mara!” Karla had no trouble hearing that shout. A man in a leather helmet and too-large goggles sailed next to them on a brass frame, across five paces of sky. Gears on his craft clicked as he flicked the lever to descend more steeply. “Are the others prepared to meet resistance?”

Karla didn’t know his name, but he was one of her mother’s friends–the men and women who filled the shack most nights to talk in whispers, or train with weapons in the yard. The ones she called her Harpooneers.

“All of us are prepared to die,” Mara told the man. “Better a few of us fall than the ash cloud takes everyone.”

The man glanced behind him, the corners of his long white mustache plastering against his face. He turned green when he saw the ash cloud, and looked quickly ahead again. “Those damn Rokhshan don’t know what’s coming for them.”

“Oh, they know.” Mara stared ahead, and Karla did too, at the sphere floating in clear air. A storm roiled above Castle Nashido, dumping rain over its battlements. The fleet of gliders was on a collision course with the topmost towers. “They know exactly what they did to us. They’d see us all choke to keep their kingdom.”

“Mommy?” Karla asked as the nose dipped deeper. “Will we have to fight any Rokhshan?”

“Stay close to me. Nothing will hurt you.”

“But will we?”

They were close enough to the castle to see people moving on the turrets now: crawling out of hatches, loading things into tubes. Lighting lanterns in the windows. Mara pointed their nose down even further, into a dive so steep it pushed Karla’s stomach against her ribs. “I won’t let them hurt you.”

The other Harpooneer gliders dove as one behind them, the birds turned into arrows pointed at Castle Nashido. The only safe place left.

***

For someone well-read, Kio wasn’t that good at swearing. He used every word he knew the moment it became clear he’d lost Karla. Just as he’d escaped from his memory, she was trapped in hers.

Oh, well. Maybe it was better in there. He wasn’t sure how to explain to her that the pile of stones had collapsed in just the right way to plug the hole they’d entered through.

Or that the air was beginning to smell like rotting fruit, and he was holding both their faces close to the ground so they could breathe.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Citadel 2

The upper side of the hole was shrouded in gloom, but felt airier than the servant’s hall below. Swiftly, by reflex, Karla fished for her glowing stone and held it aloft. She couldn’t see the walls.

On the plus side, there were no slavering demons crawling toward her out of the dark, real or imagined. She gave a shaky laugh, set the stone on the floor, and reached both arms down to help Kio up.

Her friend carefully set himself down, like a sparrow alighting, and drew his own glowstone.

“One pace forward…” he whispered, with the faintest of echoes, “dumbwaiters. Side tables, perhaps broken by hail when this room was still open to the sky.”

Karla glowered. “You’re not turning automaton on me, are you?”

“You handle this your way, and I’ll do it mine.” Kio held the stone up. “Fragments of…of carpet…”

He stepped back, swallowing hard. Her heart speeding up, Karla swung her light starboard, shining it on the walls.

She stumbled back like she’d been burned. She hadn’t, though. It was the walls that had been burned. Black soot marks climbed all the way to the ceiling, some with the outlines of furniture, and–

“Furniture,” she gasped. “That’s only furniture.”

Kio must have seen the burns on the carpet. He knew the same thing she did.

The only question was, what did they both know?

Taking a deep breath, Kio turned to face her, bringing his glowstone around in the process. It swept for a brief second over a human figure outlined in the walls.

His cry of “No!” came out strangled. Karla grabbed him by the arm and pulled him aft.

“Find the leak. Get in. Get out. You can do it, Kio.”

He nodded, said something garbled. Fought to remain steady–she could tell–as he took two paces aft.

Then he exhaled, and Karla saw why. Both their pools of light fell on a sight easier to take in.

The bone dragon had been more methodical than his claws or his weird legs would have suggested. Beside the hole it had torn in the inner citadel, it had left a pile of the interlocking bricks that made up Nashido’s walls, stacked in piles as though the dragon would need them again. They towered up into the gloom.

Karla inched closer. Mara and the Benefactor and whoever help her, had the dragon been sorting the stones?

No time to wonder about that now. Kio was looking whiter by the second. The stacks of stones leaned against each other in a stable pile: easy climbing for a Nashido native.

She pointed this out. “I bet if we climb that, we can find the leak.”

Kio said nothing. Though the air was a bit less frigid in here, his breath still clouded. But as she started up the side of one pile, she watched him follow, and took heart. He looked to be doing better.

***

Kio was not doing better.

He’d kept it under wraps, but ever since seeing that outline on the wall, he’d been seeing somewhere else.

He wondered if this meant he was about to transform into a bird. But Karla had described feeling as though she was living in her vision. Kio was still here, still knew where he was putting his feet, but his experience had hurtled backward.

It only took a few seconds more for him to understand this feeling. He was remembering. And with such clarity it was like the visions he’d repressed all those years had been unearthed without a scrap of dirt on them.

 

In the mist garden, at the bottom of the castle, Kio Rokhshan hid behind a rock and watched the gliders. How’s the ash cloud pushing them? he thought. What’s it doing to the wind?

The mist garden was a good place to hide. The children and the elderly were all sheltering in the great hall, behind the high table where all the violet-and-silver House Rokhshan banners hung. But that was one floor up, and way too obvious. When the invaders fought their way down from the towers, that was the first place they’d go. Here, the soil beds of the garden were the only thing between Kio and open sky, and the mists and rocks concealed him from anyone’s view.

Wind blew sheets of rain over him, chilling him to the bone as he huddled on the lawn. The garden was moongrass from one of the sky kingdoms, which shone a faint glow over the underside of the clouds of fog. High above, flashes lit the clouds. His parents were firing the cannons.

A heavy boom echoed from the highest tower. Others followed, like a giant stamping closer through the mist. Yellow lightning crackled across the crescent of sky Kio could see from his hiding place. They were firing the big cannons–the ones meant for bone dragons only. Were these surface people on gliders worse than bone dragons?

Still prone, Kio craned his neck up, but could only see the underside of the great hall floor. Suddenly he wished he’d gone to hide by the heartsphere instead. The garden was too cold, too windy, too wet. There was only one stairway out, so thin the surface people could have cut through it and dropped Kio and the garden into empty space. He wanted to hide somewhere warm.

Another boom rocked the whole castle when he pushed himself to his feet, and he flung his arms out, wrapping them around the slim rock to keep from plummeting off the edge. Small thuds and cracks drifted down through the storm as he ran over the gleaming grass. The gliders were too close for cannons. His mother and father were fighting on the towers.

Up the stairs, then right, away from the great hall. The hallway opened up onto the machine courtyard, the pumps and pistons he’d never understood. He wished he could run faster, wished he wasn’t so small.

Weaving between the engines, he looked for the next staircase. Another right, another left. Backtrack–was this the same machine? He couldn’t find his way up.

Kio had never gone from the mist garden to the heartsphere alone before. Or in the dark, or with a storm like the great green ash cloud approaching. The air was a little harder to breathe here, his lungs a little slower.

There was no castle over his head anymore. He could see all the way up to the high towers. Surface people’s gliders swarmed the castle like insects, growing thick around the tops of the towers.

Icy fear clamped down over Kio. Something flew over a battlement and struck one of the gliders, and the next thing he knew, a figure was plunging toward him, growing bigger. Big as a star, big as the moon, big as the island–

–the glider swept past the machine courtyard and fell beyond the castle, toward the sea. Kio Rokhshan screamed, and his feet carried him back the way he’d come, to hide inside and clasp himself against the heartsphere.

 

He was back. But not back.

He remembered everything. The surface people and the Ash Cloud had come on the same day. One had brought the other.

The memory made him act without thinking–made him behave as though he was there. The enemy was swarming over Nashido, entering the inner citadel. Kio was alone on a battlefield. Anybody he saw, anybody, was a monster of the surface–

Kio dropped his glowstone. It clattered through the hole, into the outer citadel, twisting everything into shadow.

On top of the tower of blocks was a mostly flat plateau. Kio vaulted up to it. Karla turned just in time to see him swinging a fist at her face.

The tower shifted.

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Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Citadel 1

With every step, shadowed by Karla’s racing feet behind him, a new implication made itself clear in Kio’s mind.

Normally, getting closer to the heartsphere made everything warmer. But if anything, the chill intensified as he hurried down the spiral steps.

Medwick had been right about the cold. What else had he been right about?

Karla raced to catch up with him. “I threw the hitch off the battlement,” she panted. “We can’t get away from that place fast enough. Kio, what is going on?”

Kio didn’t turn. He wasn’t ready to. He was replaying the moment of his final escape from Medwick on the lift, his gut aching with the certainty that he’d made the wrong choice.

Obviously the court priest had been incredibly suspicious. But what if he’d wanted Nashido because of his own best interest? He’d thought that not trusting Karla was a sure sign that couldn’t be true, but supposing he’d let Medwick meet Karla before deciding for everyone?

Or supposing Medwick was right about her all along?

He slammed his feet down harder on the stone steps, hoping to jolt himself back to reality. It wasn’t just evil to assume Karla was planning to betray him. It was completely illogical.

And yet. The cold.

Kio!” Karla yelled, bringing him to a halt at the rolling tower door. “Tell me what’s happening, right now! Is this cold dangerous? Is it going to kill us?”

Froze the king to its throne. Families died in each other’s arms.

Forget Medwick. He had runes, he could handle himself. He had a new enemy now. Or the same old enemy, the sky.

“It doesn’t have to,” he said, and rolled the tower door open.

***

A rime of ice spread over the surface of the basin, clear crystal growing as they watched like a manic weed. Karla shivered.

She chided herself. Had to hide that. The cold was making Kio nervous–even more nervous than a threat to their very lives usually did. No reason to keep reminding him.

But as they headed through the outer citadel, she found she couldn’t stop.

One of the bedrooms they sometimes slept in had a brazier of hot coals. She and Kio hauled in warm pots from other rooms and lit them with matches he’d smuggled back from the sky kingdom. The room had thick tapestries hanging on every wall, more animal fur than artwork, and a four-poster bed with canopy. With the curtains drawn, and five fires burning outside, the stuffy space inside the bed almost managed room temperature.

“What are we gonna do?” Kio asked. Impulsively, Karla took his face in her hands. The way he’d said it was so weak, almost surrendering, that she wanted to fight twice as hard to protect him.

“Not give up, first of all,” she growled. “We’re all we have.”

“We’re…” Kio broke off. For a moment all she heard was wind. “All we have.”

“We’ve beaten thunderstorms and tornadoes and dragons and sky kingdoms and we’re gonna beat this. And that starts with information. What’s going on down there?”

“There’s…” Kio gathered himself, sitting cross-legged on the fur blanket. “There are two main problems with living at this altitude. The first is the thinness of the air.”

“But the vines produce oxygen, and the crystals maintain it as an atmosphere.” Karla let go of his face to rub her hands together and blow on them. Had she left her gloves in the workshop?

Kio nodded. “The second problem is the cold.”

“We keep warm with furs–”

“–warm enough for a mountaineering expedition, maybe. For a gliding trip. Not for living up here for years. Karla, you know all this–”

“We are gathering information.” Her blasted digits wouldn’t get warm. “We’ve gotta lay it all out. Make sure there’s only one way to move forward.”

One way I’m avoiding. She was avoiding even thinking about it, in fact. Wasn’t that how she had always done it?

Kio shook his head. “I don’t want to.”

“Finish,” she said firmly. “How are we going to fix it if we can’t even talk about it?”

Now you want to talk about it? It’s been ten years–”

They both shivered at the same time, as though a wave of cold had washed over them both. The sky was leaking in.

“The other way we’ve kept warm,” Kio said mechanically, “is with the gas. There’s a permanent–”

“–or arbitrarily long–”

“–chemical reaction occurring within the walls, that produces the rest of the heat we need.”

“So what’s wrong with it?”

Kio balled the covers in his fists. “Karla, don’t make me…”

“I’m not making you do anything!” she snapped, grabbing his hands and clutching both in her own. “We have a choice to sit here and freeze to death or do something absolutely horrible that’ll keep us alive. It was nobody’s idea, neither of us said, hey, let’s have a dragon punch a hole in our flying house and start the gas that keeps us alive leaking out. But right now reality is that we have maybe two hours to do something about it or we’ll freeze. We need to have a plan.

“It’s leaking out of the inner citadel!” Kio finished, desperately trying to quiet her. “It’s leaking from the inner citadel and I don’t want to go there.

“Don’t you want to live?” Chill spread through her fingers, and she clung tighter to Kio’s hands. “Kio, don’t you want to remember? Haven’t we waited long enough?”

“No.” For a second, Kio’s eyes were far away. “I’m happy not remembering. That’s what I learned today.”

What had happened to him up there on the sky kingdom? All of a sudden, he had another secret to match hers, and it had much more of Year Zero about it than the rune decay thing–which, she remembered with a jolt in her gut, they still hadn’t solved.

“The leak’s in the inner citadel,” she said. “We’ll go in through the bottom, find it, plug it, and get out. It doesn’t have to take more than fifteen minutes.”

“I know.” Kio rubbed his eyes. “I don’t have a choice. I can’t let you do it alone. I just don’t want to remember. I will go in and out, I will not look at anything, and I will not think. All right?”

“All right,” Karla said, because it was, sort of. She needed him. She had him. They were out of time to waste.

Besides, she thought as they left their cocoon and headed into the corridors of the outer citadel, there’s no reason to believe anything will happen.

She wished she believed that. For ten years, she’d been as happy as Kio had to avoid the area closest to the heartsphere and all the pain associated with it. Leaving that pain nebulous and shadowy had been a survival strategy.

Now, they’d have to face it all at once.

“Year Zero is coming,” she said to herself, quiet enough for the wind to drown out.

They took the indoor route. It was warmer, and besides, no rope or vine ladder could get them there any faster. Without speaking, they detoured quickly to one of their storerooms, and stashed charged glowmoss-covered rocks in the pockets of their furs. The inner citadel had windows, but most of them had broken, and Karla and Kio had filled them up with gravel and lime.

In the outer citadel, the only sign that the castle was built around a spherical core was the inner walls of some of the side rooms. They curved, like the bulkheads on a ship.

The Outer Citadel, A Summary (CRA6Ch1)

Illustration by Grace Pyles.

Karla and Kio passed solaria, feasting halls, whole rooms with nothing but broken clocks. They passed the statuary corridor with its one missing statue, and took the stairs down to the lowest apex of the outer citadel. There was a long servants’ mess down there, a spartan room lined with cupboards and shelves. The walls were as cold to the touch as the ice on the reservoir.

In the center of the room, a long table had been shattered in two. A massive hole in the floor yawned below the breach. Above it, a smaller gap loomed in the ceiling. Its edges were straight. The bone dragon had removed the bricks one by one.

She touched Kio’s shoulder and pointed up at the hole. “We can reach it if we move the table.”

“I’ll…I’ll boost you. Then you help me up.”

Kio was shaking. From the cold, she decided.

The broken pieces of table slid together like a key fitting into the lock of a jail cell. They stepped onto it, careful not to put too much weight on the part hanging over open sky.

Mara, Karla thought as she clambered into Kio’s interlocked hands. Mom. Please be with us in there.

She grabbed the ragged edge with both arms, and hoisted herself up into the darkness.

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Signal 5

Today marks the finale of arc 5! As we head toward the 1/3-completion mark of my planned story, I’d like to take this chance to remind everyone that I do rely on donations to keep this going. If you like The Clockwork Raven, please follow this link or the sidebar to my Patreon, and consider making a pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shoutout at the end of a chapter!

“Fine,” Kio blurted out. His head was spinning. He just wanted to lie down wrapped in his bedroll on Nashido.

“Fine, what?” All Medwick’s fingers gripped the staff in a vise. Kio counted, and saw he was missing one. He couldn’t tell on which hand.

“I’ll listen.” He gritted his teeth. Getting words out took energy.

“To a proof that I am on your side?”

“To anything.”

“Good.” Medwick relaxed slightly. Perhaps his life force was growing stronger again. He seemed more in control, less liable to crumble at any time. “It is a proof I cannot give you here.”

Let me guess.

“I will have to return with you to Castle Nashido. To show you firsthand the danger you are in.”

“I won’t let you–”

“I will not harm Karla.” His face seemed truthful, but what did Kio know about scanning for liars? “I will not even speak to her if you do not wish it. But I must come.”

“I was right,” Kio breathed. “You want the castle. You want to be a king.”

“I am a king here, Lord Rokhshan.”

“But not with people.”

A corner of Medwick’s mouth twitched. “At the moment, it seems that whichever of us is sovereign has a subject at last.”

Kio’s eyes strayed upward, to the golden-blue of a half-clouded late afternoon sky. It was peaceful, far too peaceful. How had his life gone this wrong? How was he going to explain this to Karla, and how could he let her go to sleep with Medwick in Sunton prowling the castle?

The signal was still flickering around the top of the prism. Karla must have thought he was taking too long, was in trouble. If only she knew how much.

If only he knew how much.

Medwick waited patiently. He could be confident Kio had no option but to say yes, to shove the court priest into his life like the staff into the gears.

Suddenly he noticed that the signal was moving in a pattern. It vanished above the prism, then dipped down again, four times across the side.

There wasn’t anything meaningful he could do up there. The important thing wasn’t the location. It was the number.

Four. What around here came in fours?

Misfortune, apparently.

But also the sides of prisms.

Karla had drawn his attention to the mysterious mechanism, and now she was telling him to look on all four sides.

The truth wasn’t hard to see. There was hope after all.

No time to spin a lie. If he spoke he would give himself away. He stayed on his knees and shuffled backwards, hoping to be in place before Medwick noticed what he was doing.

“Master Kio?” the priest asked.

Kio ignored him. The Rokhshan-style mosaic was easier to find now that he’d seen the first one.

Medwick laughed. “Master Kio, I know how this system works. You cannot override it.”

Kio’s fingers paused in the crack, but he looked up again. Perched on the edge of the prism, dangling her legs, was an image of Karla just strong enough for him to ask it, what would you do?

Here’s what you say, it responded.

And Kio had his answer.

“If that was true,” he told Medwick, “you wouldn’t be trying to stop me.”

He flung the lever, and the clockwork in the altar roared to life.

Medwick grunted, his grip tightening further–somehow–as he tried to resist a strong force. The gears were fighting him.

If only Karla were really here. This contraption is amazingly built. And I’m about to find out what it does.

With Medwick stuck trying to rescue his staff, Kio threw the levers under the third and fourth mosaics. The fourth resisted harder than any, but pushing his whole weight against it at last forced it to shift.

The prism shifted with it.

Later, he couldn’t recall it moving–he had thrown the lever and it was somewhere else, something else. Medwick shouted, screamed as half his stick began to dissolve under the relentless crunch of the gears.

The black glass had a seam, thin enough to be invisible, but dividing it cleanly from the prism embedded in the steps. Heavy joints pushed up from four sides to lift it clear.

Beneath it was a square shaft leading down to open sky.

Medwick raised his head and locked eyes with him. The staff must have been important in some way Kio didn’t have time to figure out. Glancing through the gap, seeing what he needed to see, he rolled his backpack under the prism.

It landed on the lift with a heavy thud, and the crack narrowed again, leaving less than a pace of clearance.

Of course. An escape hatch that closes itself behind you.

He rolled in. Half into the shaft, half out, he once again looked into Medwick in Sunton’s harsh face. The end of the staff was free, but pulverized into sawdust.

“You win,” the priest said, his voice shaking. “I won’t follow you. I will stay. I will fail my only mission, if that’s what you want.”

“I want you to leave me alone.” Kio rolled into the shaft.

His feet hit a platform made of strong lumber. His weight turned gears, lowering the prism along with the elevator.

This time, Medwick didn’t bother with the gears. Unable to fit himself through the gap between prism and ground, he shoved his staff directly into it instead.

Wind rushed up through the open space at the bottom of the shaft. Medwick’s mouth moved. Kio couldn’t make out a word he was saying.

“Let me go!” He jumped, landed hard. The glass obelisk lurched down, splintering the rest of the staff.

“Beware of the cold,” Medwick implored. “Beware of the cold.”

“What?” Kio shouted, against his better judgement. His feet were planted on the lift. “What cold?”

“The beasts will destroy your source of warmth. They did it to us several times before the calamity. Now it has happened again, with nobody to repair it. They will do it to you.”

“How do you know? You just woke up!”

“I have felt it. Shivering, chilling. It is what has interfered with my–my life force–“

He grunted as a loud ka-chunk dropped the lift and prism still further. Kio was left looking Medwick in the eyes through the little remaining sliver of sky.

“You have been insulated until now by all the paper in your pockets,” Medwick said hurriedly, “but the cold will grow.”

“You’re lying.”

“It once became cold enough to freeze our king in his throne. The merchants froze to their stalls. Families died, icy statues in each other’s arms. Lord Rokhshan, you’ve never experienced the true chill of the sky–”

“This is your lie,” Kio cried at the same time, “you were gonna use it to hold Nashido hostage, to hurt Karla–”

Please–“

It’ll never be true!”

Kio leapt up into the air, and came down hard.

Another bit of Medwick’s staff shattered as the gap closed. He picked it up in his hand, repeating his words more softly.

“It’ll never be true.” He ran his fingers along the break in the wood. “Never be true.”

***

The first thing Karla saw was part of the ground giving way.

Still atop her tower, she abandoned focusing with the mirror and rushed to the opposite battlements to watch. From there, frantically scanning the whole flying continent, she discovered that her target–the glass prism–was sinking into the earth.

“So the escape route was hidden under the holiest spot in the kingdom.” She half-smiled. “Not bad for places nobody would ever look.”

Seconds later, the lift appeared. Emerging slowly from the bottom of the pile of floating dirt that made up the kingdom’s lower half, it lowered farther and farther out as the prism above it vanished. By the time the great lying signal was fully hidden, a platform with a post at each corner dangled over open sky, with Kio huddled around a backpack in the middle.

“Wooooo!” Even as Karla shouted, tears sprang to her eyes. Her image of Kio vanished, and she threw Better Karla aside as well. She hadn’t solved this one, Karla had, and now Kio–the real, real Kio–was almost back.

Almost, she thought. How was he gonna do this?

She examined the lift as much as she could from so far away. Each of those poles must have been connected to gears with some resistance, and they’d all reached their limits. But there wasn’t any flying device she could see…

Karla then realized two things in quick succession.

The first was that, while she could see Kio on the lift, she was just far enough below him that a guided application of gravity could still get him to Nashido.

The second was that she should probably move out of the way.

She ducked into the stairwell, but kept the door open to watch. From that angle, she couldn’t see Kio anymore–except when his hands reached around the lift platform to find something hidden underneath.

A pretty large thing, come to think of it. A pretty familiar thing.

A harpoon gun, with a coiled-up cable attached to the butt.

Kio took forever to line up his shot. She was always chiding him about that when they were shooting at birds, but Nashido was a slightly bigger target. When the spear slammed home, she was there to tie it off with their best knot.

Should name that. The Nashido Hitch. The Karla Hitch?

Kio wrapped two ends of a strip of leather from the pack around his wrists. He tested, tested one more time–I guess he’s not getting chased, Karla thought–and leapt.

She sucked in her breath. Was any part of this half-assed mechanism going to hold together?

Kio needed to hurry and get back so she could let him ask dumb questions like that.

As it turned out, he did. With impressive speed.

He landed with a disquieting thud. She vaulted out of the stairway, racing across the roof–

–he pulled his arms out of the straps of his pack and wrapped his arms around a battlement and got to his knees–

–she hauled him up to his feet and then they were clasping each other so hard it was as though they were the only things keeping each other anchored amid the clouds.

“You’re back,” she murmured into his shoulder.

He said nothing. She felt her fur growing warm, realized he was crying. Let him cry.

How long they stood that way she had no idea. She didn’t care to know. When she at last let him out, she said, “I want to know the story. The whole thing. What’s in the pack? What did you find up there?”

“I…” His shoulders stiffened under her grip. “Not now. Later. Please.”

Suddenly she was uncertain. “All right, sure. We don’t have to talk now. Let’s get this to the kitchen and you to some bedroom or other…”

She shivered.

A wave of cold had rushed through her body, like they did sometimes, but it wasn’t going away. The chill she’d felt all day on Nashido was growing more pervasive.

Kio turned as white as the clouds above him.

“You all right?” Karla reached for him again.

He shrank away. “You’re cold.”

“Yeah, sure, but we still have furs–“

“It wasn’t a lie.”

“What?”

“It wasn’t a lie!”

As she reached for him again, he bolted into the open stairwell, feet pounding down the stairs until the sound receded.

Thanks to Lynne, Thomas, Paul, and David for their continued support, and to all of you for reading.

Signal 4

Laying her mirror down, Karla took several long breaths to stead herself. It was maddening not knowing if her signal was working or not.

Even worse, she could only communicate at the most basic level. “Hey!” or “Look over there!” If only they had some language invented for long distances…

A memory came back to her–hanging off the side of a tower in driving rain, trying to pilot the castle through a lightning storm so they could fill the reservoir before their engine died. They’d both been covered in glowmoss, in order to see each others’ arms making–

“Signals!” she said aloud. Wonderful old glowmoss. Was there any problem it couldn’t solve?

She tried to remember. Crossing arms had meant give me the bearing, fine. Tapping the right side of the head had meant got it, tapping the left had meant say again.

What had the signal for go to the inner sanctum of the flying city and find a secret lever for the escape elevator been again?

Two parallel lines with the arms had meant turn on. With a bit of imagination, that could mean operate machine. And find was close to seek and there was a sign for that: a continuous circle.

But how to tell him where the device was hidden?

Karla rubbed her eyes. She’d have to count on Kio for that.

***

The backpack pounded against Kio’s back, corners and edges digging and scraping. He was lean, used to running, and didn’t have an ounce of fat on his body, and even he was going rubber-legged under the weight of his pack. He burned his way through half-remembered streets, turning this way and that, following the gate in the inner walls where Karla’s signal lingered.

All the time, Medwick in Sunton was gaining behind him.

“My lord!” the priest gasped out. “Lord Kio, please!”

Kio had neither breath nor words to reply. He fought to pound his feet faster than Medwick. If he didn’t reach the center island soon, he would have to throw out food.

Never. The supplies on his back were all he’d managed to accomplish with the trip. He couldn’t give them up.

The second person he’d met in his life, and within an hour, he was running away.

“Lord Rokhshan, I only want to talk! I will not hurt you!”

He was on one of the ring roads. An alley crossed his path ahead, pointing more toward the center. He pivoted on impulse and shot down it, dancing over jagged bits of rubble.

He’s only chasing you because you’re running, Kio thought. But he was only running because Medwick was trying to convince him that Karla wanted to kill him–had orders to kill him. How could someone with an objective like that want anything other than violence?

The question was: what did the sky kingdom man have to gain by starting the world’s smallest war on Nashido?

A wall flew up in his path. Terror clenched over him. He’d chosen a dead end.

Kio wasted precious seconds letting that fact become real in his mind, as Medwick’s footsteps grew louder. If he spun and ran now he could make it out before…

Medwick’s six-foot-plus shadow filled the gap. Kio turned gingerly, the backpack like an anchor tied to his chest.

“I could not harm you even if I wanted to,” Medwick began, then buckled, as though an invisible bone dragon had struck him in the small of his back.

For an instant Kio believed that was exactly what happened. He braced, crazily, for the shadow to come and strike him next.

Then he came to his senses, stopped questioning the gift, and slipped a second time past Medwick’s outstretched arm.

“I am…I am not strong!” the priest choked as he clambered to his feet. “I have been dead for years, Kio, I can only catch you if you come to me!”

So you say, Kio thought, but you’re a liar, and you’re getting closer.

He had that one asset: that something about the repose Medwick had placed himself into with his rune was still acting on him, slowing him down. If not for that, Kio would have to dump his pack, and if he did that, he might as well throw himself over the side with it.

Circling clockwise, toward the kingdom’s port side, he reached one of the bridges that connected to the temple like spokes.

The moment he stepped onto it, he heard the rat-tat-tat of clicks from one of the guns he and Karla had disarmed. Her signal was dancing around the stone grove at the other end.

By coincidence. Surely. She couldn’t know where he was.

Medwick’s lurchings grew louder behind him, scraping and scuffling, inexorable as an onrushing wall of cloud.

Pacing over the bridge, Kio felt the thin floor swaying beneath him. He slowed down, but at a wordless cry from Medwick, sped up again, heart catching in his throat.

He kept his eyes on the signal and tried to move quickly and slowly at the same time. It didn’t quite work.

Wondering weighed him down. Why was Medwick following, if the priest himself didn’t think he’d be able to catch Kio?

He must have known that Kio would never listen to his warnings about Karla and the Harpooneers. Never enough to get him whatever deceitful objective he wanted, anyway.

But he was still there, upright again, pacing resolutely onto the bridge. That could only mean one thing. Medwick believed he was telling the truth.

Unless…

I like to test things.

He turned to face Medwick, like they had before, less than two hours ago. Kio became uncomfortably aware that he was running deeper into the ruins, away from his home.

The priest stopped, his face full of expectation. For a moment, Kio faltered, seeing Karla in his place. Would he have been able to disappoint her this way?

She would have punched Medwick in Sunton in the face by now. Kio took a deep breath.

“You want Nashido, don’t you?”

Medwick had regained his stature. Kio skirted a couple of steps back on instinct.

“I have further proof,” the man said, as though Kio hadn’t made his accusation. He looked resolved, as though regreatting the weakness he’d shown by reverting to his near-corpse state. “Proof that I am your ally.”

“I don’t want any more proof.” Kio regretted saying that immediately, but one instinct had overwhelmed another. “You’re trying to get our castle. I don’t know why. Just, nothing else makes sense.”

“Your ancestral home of Nashido is a fine fortress,” Medwick replied. “But what you say is not true. I am sorry you feel that way.”

Kio looked around. The light from the castle kept up its crazy dance over the tops of the outer walls.

“Lord Rokhshan–”

“–I am not really a lord–

“–Kio, why is it so difficult for you to believe that I have your interests at heart?”

“You want me to hurt Karla. And you’ve never met her.”

“You are certain.” Medwick spread his hands wide. “That is an admirable quality. Reading the histories, I wish some of your predecessors had possessed your power of trusting in another. I only ask that you give me the same chance to earn it that she has had.”

Kio didn’t want to hear Medwick’s new evidence. The thought of it turned his stomach. Who cared what Karla was or wasn’t? Who cared whether she had the right tattoos? She was trying to save him right now.

He had to get away. Had to focus on getting to the surface, redouble their efforts. Nobody who wanted to take Karla from him could be his ally. Benefactor, he was going to have to feed scraps of this food to a gull before he trusted any of it.

Running again, thinking this, he saw the sunlight signal flick above the highest wall, then blink out.

He was within the walls before he could skid to a stop. Medwick was striding toward him again.

What had happened to Karla?

***

“Damn that whole island!” Karla swore. “And the sun while I’m at it!”

She’d managed to hold steady on the ledge, but the angle of her ray had been dangerously low for a while, and now it was totally blocked by the crumbling stone walls around the kingdom’s edge. Rage grew in her as she stared down the half-finished graffiti festooning the barrier, spat at the bone-white arm hanging over one.

“Fix the system before you whine, Karla,” she muttered. “Changes. What’s going on?”

She was, for one thing, too fixated on this bottom mirror. With a bit of twine from one of her pockets, she lashed it upright to a gourd, then kicked over the other pumpkin she was using as a counterweight.

Freewheeling upward, an afternoon breeze whipping through her hair, she felt herself flung upward at an angle, and sprawled atop the tower where she’d affixed the highest mirror in her system. The five and a half feet of clearance she could provide might make the difference.

The point of light wavered, then shifted, then came to rest on the very top of the prism itself. Her fix had worked!

Power welled up within her and broke out across her face in a smile. But a glance at her Kio image swiftly dampened the feeling. She couldn’t make the whole signal with such a small range of light.

“Just a few extra feet…”

Karla snapped her fingers so suddenly she nearly dropped the mirror.

***

The prism! Just as he’d feared Karla lost, her light came back, guiding him closer to his goal. Somehow, the black tower itself was going to save him.

“Master Kio, think about what you’re trying to do!” Medwick shouted from the edge of the plaza. “You cannot escape!”

I can if she thinks I can.

Kio reached the stairs. He scrambled up so quickly he threw out his hands with each step to keep from faceplanting.

“Am I to chase you forever?” Medwick called. “Or will you listen to reason?”

The afternoon light revealed his reflection in the prism, the small brown-mopped weak-faced figure charged with determination. Violet beams still shot to and fro within the dark glass. Medwick hadn’t turned off his signal trap.

Kio threw out his hand and struck the prism palm-first. Nothing happened.

The spot of sunlight lingered at the top of the tower.

“I’m here!” he said aloud, for all the good it would do. “I’m at the center! What am I supposed to do now?”

***

She was going to have to apologize to Kio for this when he got back. Not that he’d make her, but he deserved it.

Still, Karla had to admit she was enjoying throwing those pompous royal engineers’ manuals into the ocean. The aeronautics writers could stay, of course, for Raven’s sake. But what use did they have for books about how to build giant monuments to legacies that were almost certainly stupid?

The books she threw didn’t weigh much at all, but they worked like jettisoning the tower had done, back when that seemed like a good idea. The runes were holding Nashido in zero gravity. Throwing something one way nudged her just a little bit the other way.

More of the black prism came into view. There we go, she thought. The place for my last signal.

***

Find, turn on, and then one continuous line…

Kio figured it out just as Medwick fought off another coughing fit to ascend the stairs. The long line meant look at the ground. There was something hidden in the tiles.

On the other side of the prism, he dropped to his knees and probed the mosaic floor like a blind man searching for his dropped coins.

Silent but for his footsteps, Medwick in Sunton paced his way up the altar.

Kio poked and prodded and dug and found nothing. He panicked, gasped, scraped until his fingers turned raw.

A machine hidden under mosaics. Could the tiles itself be the clue? Only this close to them did he notice that they actually bore pictures.

All the usual things. Gods. Heroes. Monsters.

Monsters of bones.

Before the complete thought had formed in his head, both Kio’s hands had flocked to the image of the bone dragon. It was done in the Nashido style–a little more primal, rougher around the edges.

His fingers found the catch, and slid it back to reveal a gear system and lever.

No sooner had he opened the door than the end of a staff slammed into the clockwork, sticking it fast. Kio looked up into the face of a walking statue.

“I can remove this,” Medwick said. “I alone.”

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